Grainiacs Gather In Santa Monica

by Sarah A. Spitz
Special to Santa Monica Daily Press

Southern California farmers, millers, chefs, pastry makers, brewers, distillers and home bakers are cheering for and building a new movement around locally grown heritage varieties of grain: Red Fife, Sonora, Glenn, Emmer, Spelt, Khorasan, buckwheat, rye and barley to name just a few.

If you’ve been to Santa Monica Farmers Market, you’ve seen Kandarian Farms offering their specialty varieties of grain and Kenter Canyon Farms/Roan Mills selling wheatberries, flour, pasta and bread made from the grains they’ve grown and milled.
On September 24 and 25, The Gourmandise School of Sweets and Savories at Santa Monica Place is convening a two-day conference for consumers and the trade, in part to educate the public about the many benefits of these grains for nutrition and flavor—with plenty of samples to prove the point—and to exchange knowledge and experience among the farmers, chefs, millers, brewers and bakers who grow and use these grains and flours.

Clemence de Lutz Gossett of Gourmandise recalls that several years ago, a group of about 40 chefs, bakers and farmers got together to talk about heritage grains in an informal setting.

“It was a closed room and people were able to ask each other questions that they would often be afraid to ask, and at the end of it we all kind of looked at each other and said, wow this is much bigger than just this meeting.

” So last year, she put together the first grain conference at Gourmandise, with panel discussions, hands-on workshops and keynote speakers. Gossett says, “We wanted it to be a safe space where people could understand where this burgeoning heirloom and heritage grain movement was going, where it was at now, and what the future of it could be—is it sustainable, can we grow grains on a small scale, can we compete with commodity grain, how do we bake with them, how do they differ from each other, how can we learn more.”

Now it’s morphed into a two-day conference, with the first day (Sunday, Sept. 24) geared to the consumer and the second (Monday, Sept. 25) focused on the trade. The trade day is sold out, but there are still some seats available for the consumer day, which includes lunch and a cocktail hour. Find out more here:
Gossett says it’s important for the public to understand why there’s a price difference between locally grown heritage grain flours and commercial products like Pillsbury or King Arthur, whose roller-mill processes strip the most nutritious parts of the grain away and then need to be enriched.

Stone ground whole grain, however, retains all the nutrients in the grain, which offers health benefits and increases the flavor profiles of baked goods. And it’s good for the environment too: growing grains can help sequester carbon, improve soil structure and benefit the farmer with an additional cash crop.

In Northern California, there is a well-established local grain economy, made famous by such bakers as Dave Miller in Chico, Chad Robertson of Tartine and Josey Baker (his real name) of Mill, both in San Francisco.

(Note: Baker, a rock star in the bread world, will be the keynote speaker on consumer day.)

There is also the harvesting, cleaning and milling infrastructure to support farmers, so they can get these superior grains to the chefs and bakers whose customers demand unique grain bowls, breads, pastries and pasta made with them.

This is what Southern California needs and in part why the Tehachapi Grain Project was created. Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms and his farmer neighbors, Sonoko Sakai, Jon Hammond and others are bringing back a grain culture that was overtaken by large-scale agribusinesses with massive acreage of wheat, corn and rice, creating high-yield, low-priced commodity crops and pricing the small grain grower out of the market.

But, says Weiser, small farms are back with a new market for artisanal grains and flours. “For us it’s kind of the missing part of the food revolution. In the 80s and 90s, we were discovering all those great varieties of heirloom tomatoes and carrots and potatoes, but grains are 65% of everything we eat and it was the missing piece. And California grows great grains.

Weiser had grown them as a cover crop to hold soil and weeds down, later turning them under to feed the soil. But when presented with the opportunity to experiment with seeds from heritage grains that work well for dryland farming (relying only on rain for irrigation), Weiser and his neighboring farmers ran with it.

Then the real challenge began: “Great, I know I can grow it,” he said, “now what do I do with it? There’s no place to get it processed, cleaned, harvested, milled, and that’s why we formed The Tehachapi Grain Project,” to find a way to collectively fund and share needed equipment and services.

“It’s a win, win, win,” he says, “the grains are delicious, nutritious, great for the farm, good for the atmosphere, they help enrich the soil for our potatoes and carrots. We’re even making re-useable and sustainable drinking straws out of the remaining stalks.”

It took a few years but now they regularly supply restaurants like Gjusta and The Rose Café with these flavorful grains. “This is what I love, that we’ve created a name for Tehachapi grain, people want it and ask for it. And our goal is to recreate a really great grain-growing grain belt right where it used to be.”

One early grain adopter was Andrea Crawford, of Kenter Canyon Farms. She’s about to open a bakery called Roan Mills in Fillmore, where she is the grower, the miller, the baker and the pastry maker. The breads she’s been baking for the past few years have been selling out at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, and now she’s got a 6000 square foot one-stop shop where she can do it all.

While at some bakeries, whole grain artisanal breads are priced at $9 and $12 a loaf, Crawford says “I want everyone to be able to eat our bread, so we charge $6 and we even have a slicer now. We hope we can keep the price down by selling lots of loaves to lots of people.”  Whole Foods and Bristol Farms will soon be stocking Roan Mills bread.

With her new 20-inch mill, “We’ll be able to make a variety of products, so for instance Emmer can be milled like polenta, and cracked emmer makes a wonderful porridge.

This year she has six varieties of grains and 100,000 pounds of each. “We just decided to go all out so we can get it into the marketplace at the most affordable price for consumers. Otherwise I’ll be baking that 2017 wheat for the next two years!”